Homily for the 23rd Sunday of Pentecost, October 28, 2012
NOW I SEE!
Marc Chagall, Job in Despair
In the presence of God, Job says, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know . . . I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
The story of Job’s encounter with God reminds me of walking into any huge library, which always immediately establishes my relative ignorance in the face of the enormous amount of subject matter, information and learning present there. I find it a helpfully humbling experience and I am always made aware, especially when I wander through sections entirely outside my knowledge/education base, that there is much more that I don’t know than what I know.
Job is portrayed as having an encounter with God, and coming to that awareness of how profoundly ignorant he really was. He had seen himself as a man of God, and yet his sense of God was second-hand, hearsay, and not genuine. He discovered, to his shame, that he hardly knew anything about God at all. He was merely self-righteous, his pride being based on the myth of human perfectibility and little more than chance or good luck.
The book of Job portrays a pattern of apparent perfection coming apart at the seams – pain and disappointment and confusion characterize his life. He finds the conventional wisdom no longer speaks to him, and yet for an agonizing period of time, cannot see a way forward out of his crisis.
Thanks to the presence of his former friends, Job is obliged to look at his pretensions, his pride, his failings, his misunderstanding of his place in the scheme of things. Job is not keen to recognize any fault of his own. He keeps insisting that he had done nothing to deserve the disaster.
Job seems to be saying: This shouldn’t be happening to me!! “Why not?” his friends asked. Job is gradually obliged to face his unconscious assumptions about life – his childish expectations that things should go a certain way – his way – that somehow God owed him something.
Throughout the book, Job demands answers about what has happened to him; he demands an audience with God, as his friends try to remind him that he is merely human, and probably deserves it somehow. At times, Job sounds like a petulant child, very demanding and impatient. But Job persists in wanting a face-to-face encounter with God, and when he finally gets what he’s after, he is completely humiliated. Instead of answers, he gets questions, and as God throws question after question at him, he comes to the realization that he knew virtually nothing, and therefore his life was based on a complete fallacy.
You may have heard the story of the new monk arriving at an ancient monastery. He is assigned to help the other monks in copying the old texts by hand. He soon notices, however, that they are copying copies, and not the original books.
So, the new monk goes to the abbot to ask him about this. He points out that if there was an error in the first copy, that error would be continued in all of the other copies. The abbot monk says, “We have been copying from the copies for centuries, but you make a good point, my son.”
So, the abbot goes down into the cellar with one of the copies to check it against the original. Hours later, he is still absent. So, one of the other monks goes downstairs to look for him. He hears sobbing coming from the back of the cellar and finds the old monk leaning over one of the original books crying. The young monk asks what’s wrong.
Through his tears, the old monk says: “The word is celebrate! Not celibate!”
Job had the grace to recognize that he too had been one of those religious blowhards whose concepts of God are totally off base. So often we go forward on impressions and assumptions that are not really helpful, and as the story suggests, if we get the wrong idea in the first place then we end up with a distorted sense of reality, and beliefs and spiritual practices which are misleading and unhelpful. Celibacy wasn’t the only thing the Church got wrong along the way. Often we religious people (especially clergy) don’t know what we are talking about but we toss the word “God” around as though we do, and so we use the word “God” presumptuously, in ignorance, as though we have something of a franchise on the brand name. That is what I think the Bible means regarding taking the Lord’s name in vain.
Famous mystic theologian Meister Eckhart said: “If one knows anything in God and affixes any name to it, that is not God. God is above names and above nature. We read of a man who was praying to God and wanted to give God names. Then another said, ‘Be silent, you dishonour God!’ We can find no name that we could give to God . . . for God is above names and ineffable.”
St Augustine helps to emphasize this point: “God is not what you imagine or what you think you understand. If you understand you have failed.”
Job reveals an essential truth: that at some point the religion of our youth proves inadequate in the face of adult circumstances, and we have to make a break from the religion of our youth, because it is based on what others have said, and needs to be validated and made our own. We need our own connection and relationship with God, not someone else’s.
Job thought he was well-established and secure in his faith – instead he was walking blind, his life based on an illusion. But again, to quote Eckhart: “Truly, it is in darkness that one finds the light, so when we are in sorrow, then this light is nearest of all to us.” Through his encounter with God, Job comes to a new understanding of and relationship with God, one that was much more rewarding and real than he had as a young man.
Today’s Gospel is also about a breakthrough into new vision, and suddenly seeing the light. Over the previous several chapters, Mark has painted the picture of the disciples not comprehending what Jesus was about. And then, as Jesus is about to move forward toward the climax of his life’s purpose, Mark decides to tell about an encounter between Jesus and a blind man. One has to assume that Mark’s telling of it is highly symbolic.
The disciples have refused to envision the road ahead – they’re afraid of what lies before them. They want things to stay as they were.
The blind man, on the other hand, immediately begins to see and his response is significant: Jesus tells him to go, presumably to enjoy his new freedom, but Bar-timaeus gets up and follows Jesus into the suffering and conflict that await in Jerusalem, which begins in the very next chapter of Mark’s Gospel. “Follow me.” This is the key to it all. Come and see – taste and see – enter the experience of being a disciple, walk the path, rather than just speculating about it.
Job resented the suffering he experienced – he kept insisting it shouldn’t be happening to him. He wanted his old easy privileged life back. He liked it when everything was simple and everything worked in his favour. He liked the respect and deference others paid him. He loved his well insulated, painless existence. A long time ago, an experienced priest told me, “you can’t be a good priest until you’ve had your heart broken,” which at the time did seem to make some sense, but on the other hand it was not the sort of thing you go looking for.
In the meantime, I went on, doing the best I could to appear strong and confident and faithful in my ministry. In the eyes of some I was something of a super priest – leaping huge stacks of paper in a single bound, chairing numerous committees, defending the faith, an infallible source of information, determined to save the world from darkness – or something. If we are honest, we must all get to the point where Job says: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”
Now, I think I know what that priest meant about the broken heart – this is a heart-breaking business, in so many ways. But I have come to see that it is the broken who get it – it is the broken who are able to open up to God’s light and love through the suffering they experience. It is the broken who truly know their need of God, and let God in.
Helen Keller, who was both blind and deaf, once said: “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” This is the Way of Christ – the way that leads on toward Jerusalem and confrontation with the authorities and powers of the world – the way that involves taking up our own cross and following his lead. In a way, this is the human journey toward maturity – toward fullness of life – but as Job discovered, it is not devoid of suffering, and may not even begin until suffering in some form presents itself.
Progressive theologian Darmuid O’Murchu says: “Our desire for a pain- free world, devoid of depletion and destruction, actually arises from a false sense of adulthood . . . Mature adulthood can live with … incompleteness and work with it . . . From an adult perspective, suffering is not simply an evil to be gotten rid of. A certain quality and degree of suffering is essential to an evolving universe. The adult task therefore is not to try to rid the world of suffering, a strategy that will almost certainly exacerbate the suffering that already exists, but to discern which forms of suffering are necessary for evolutionary growth and development . . .” (Adult Faith: Growing in Wisdom and Understanding, p. 135).
The Book of Job speaks to us of the necessity of letting go of our childish conceptions and expectations of God, of learning to integrate suffering and imperfection and ambiguity, and of coming to terms with the fact that that life is not perfect and doesn’t necessarily match up with our expectations.
The Epistle to Hebrews, these past weeks, has been making the point that in Christ, God has walked the path of suffering, and knows it from the inside out. Hebrews develops a theology of Jesus which suggests that the Christ was “made perfect through what he suffered.” And as a result he is “not unable to sympathize . . .” The author tries to describe a scenario in which Christ is constantly interceding on our behalf.
Our true self is often hidden, even from ourselves. We learn early on to dress up and play the roles that others have defined for us. Only when we break through into maturity do we start to operate more from within than without, guided by our own deeper wisdom rather than external authorities or fear of disappointing someone. This is the painful process that Job reveals.
During his ordeal, Job is stripped down to essentials – all his pretenses and assumptions destroyed. Only then is he ready to encounter the living God. There is a very clear connection here with the ordeal of the Cross. To enter the Kingdom, you have to arrive at a point of being willing and able to see through the futility and foolishness of this life and into a new reality. Both Job and Jesus are portrayed as entering that “new creation.”
The poet May Sarton says:
Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces . . .
The masks we fashion in youth, the ones we think we need to convince the world we are acceptable, are masks that need to be changed. Sometimes many changes happen before we find the right one, the one that is truly who we are, and with that face, and only with that face, can we stand in the face of the living God.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
RCL appointed readings:
Job 42:1-6, 10-17 Then Job answered the LORD: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before. Then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring. The LORD blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. He also had seven sons and three daughters. He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers. After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. And Job died, old and full of days.
Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22) I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the LORD; let the humble hear and be glad. O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together. I sought the LORD, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed. This poor soul cried, and was heard by the LORD, and was saved from every trouble.
The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them. O taste and see that the LORD is good; happy are those who take refuge in him. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD rescues them from them all. He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken. Evil brings death to the wicked, and those who hate the righteous will be condemned. The LORD redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.
Hebrews 7:23-23 Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.
Mark 10:46-52 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.